• Indigenous peoples in Greenland

    Indigenous peoples in Greenland

    The indigenous peoples of Greenland are Inuit and make up a majority of the Greenlandic population. Greenland is a self-governing country within the Danish Realm, and although Denmark has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Greenland’s population continue to face challenges.
  • Peoples

    50,000 out of Greenland’s 56,000 peoples are Inuit
  • Rights

    2007: Denmark adopts the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  • Children's rights

    2010: The Government of Greenland and UNICEF Denmark enter into a partnership agreement to raise awareness of children's rights in Greenland
  • Home
  • Greenland
  • Indigenous World 2020: Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

Indigenous World 2020: Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland)

Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) has been a self-governing country within the Danish Realm since 1979. The population is 88% Greenlandic Inuit out of a total of 56,225 inhabitants (July 2019).1 The majority of Greenlandic Inuit refer to themselves as Kalaallit.

Ethnographically, they consist of three major groups: the Kalaallit of West Greenland, who speak Kalaallisut; the Tunumiit of Tunu (East Greenland), who speak Tunumiit oraasiat (East Greenlandic) and the Inughuit/Avanersuarmiut of the north. The majority of the people of Greenland speak the Inuit language, Kalaallisut, which is the official language, while the second language of the country is Danish.

Greenland’s diverse culture includes subsistence hunting, commercial fisheries, tourism and emerging efforts to develop the oil and mining industries. Approximately 50% of the national budget is financed by Denmark through a block grant. In 2009, Greenland entered into a new era with the inauguration of its Act on Self-Government, which gave the country further self-determination within the Kingdom of Denmark. Together with the Danish Constitution, the Self-Government Act articulates Greenland’s constitutional position in the Kingdom of Denmark. The Self-Government Act recognises the Greenlandic people as a people under international law with the right to self-determination. Greenland has a public government and it aims to establish a sustainable economy in order to achieve greater independence.

Greenland’s self-government consists of the Inatsisar tut (Parliament), which is the elected legislature, and the Naalakkersuisut (Government), which is responsible for overall public administration, thereby forming the executive branch. The Inatsisartut has 31 elected members. The Government of Greenland adopted the UNDRIP upon its ratification in 2007 and subsequent governments have committed to its implementation. Greenland and Denmark jointly prepare reports regarding good practice on implementation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, as described in the UNDRIP and other international human rights instruments. The Government of Greenland had a decisive influence over the Kingdom of Denmark’s ratification of ILO Convention 169 in 1996, as Greenland has prioritised actions to establish the Indigenous Peoples’ collective rights to land and resources in their territories.

The Government of Greenland

After the elections in 2018, Naalakkersuisut (the Government of Greenland) was formed by a coalition of Siumut, Atassut, Partii Naleraq and Nunatta Qitornai. Partii Naleraq left the coalition in September 2018 while the other parties remained in it. Greenland’s Premier, Kim Kielsen (Siumut), formed a minority government with the support of the Democrats.2 Despite three ministerial restructurings in 2019, Kielsen had no intention of holding a new general election. Naalakkersuisoq (Minister) of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture Nikkulaat Jeremiassen (Siumut) thus stepped down following serious criticism, having given contradictory explanations with regard to over-fishing of halibut.3 Naalakkersuisoq of Industry and Energy, Aqqalu Jerimiassen (Atassut), experienced strong criticism when he told the online newspaper Sermitsiaq.ag4 that he did not believe climate change was man-made. This caused several government parties to demand his departure,5 and resulted in the Naalakkersuisoq stepping down in April to be replaced by Jess Svane (Siumut). Naalakkersuisoq of Nature and Environment Siverth K. Heilmann also stepped down, with his remit taken over by the Premier’s Office. Atassut thereby withdrew from the coalition, which is now formed of Siumut, which has 10 seats in the Inatsisartut (Parliament of Greenland), Nunatta Qitornai with one seat and the supporting party, the Democrats, with six seats. The coalition and the supporting party thus have 17 seats out of 31 in parliament.6

The year 2019 counted several spectacular political events and speeches. What most people will probably recall from the last year in international politics with regard to the Arctic Region is how Greenlandic and Danish foreign policy made the headlines when United States President Donald Trump asked the newly-elected Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen if he could purchase Greenland from Denmark! Frederiksen’s answer was, unsurprisingly, that Denmark does not own Greenland, that Greenland owns Greenland and that Greenland was not for sale. “It’s an absurd discussion, and Kim Kielsen has, of course, made it clear that Greenland is not for sale. That’s where the conversation ends,” Frederiksen told the Danish broadcaster DR. Greenland handles its own domestic affairs while the Danish government deals with defence and foreign policy. Greenland’s Naalakkersuisoq of Foreign Affairs, Ane Lone Bagger, similarly told Reuters: “We are open for business but we’re not for sale.”7

Climate action

Greenland’s climate policy is affected by Greenland’s territorial reservation, which means it has no international reduction commitments and Naalakkersuisut has not signed the Paris Agreement. Naalakkersuisut substantiates the decision by noting that the Greenlandic people are acknowledged as being Indigenous by the United Nations and, by committing to the agreement, would be constrained in their right to development according to Article 23 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).8 Greenland is, however, subject to the UN Climate Convention through Denmark and supplies data for greenhouse gas inventories. Naalakkersuisut also underlined that Greenland fully complies with the Convention’s objectives and noted with satisfaction that a binding global agreement had been achieved which sought to keep temperature increases below 2°C from the pre-industrial level.9 The Danish government does not influence Greenland’s climate policy but Denmark establishes international agreements on behalf of The Unity of the Realm,10 and is thus obliged to include Naalakkersuisut first. In an open letter to Premier Kielsen, the NGO Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Greenland’s president, Hjalmar Dahl, expressed his concerns at Trump’s climate policy both for Inuit and the five other Indigenous Peoples’ organizations in the Arctic Council. With reference to the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, Dahl stated his concern at the United States refusing to use the word “climate change”. The Inuit are known as a peace-loving people according to the Utqiaġvik Declaration from July 2018.11 ICC strongly urged the five Arctic coastal nations to maintain the Arctic as a safe area. ICC stated that the inclusion of Arctic Indigenous Peoples at all levels was pivotal to ensure that their rights as Indigenous Peoples were acknowledged and respected.12

Former Premier of Greenland and advisor to ICC, Kuupik Kleist, participated in the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit and advocated putting the Arctic back onto the climate change agenda. At the summit, Kleist noted that the Arctic had disappeared from this agenda and criticised the fact that the Indigenous Peoples’ representative was given only two minutes to deliver his speech.13 At COP25 in Madrid in December, ICC stated that we have less than 10 years to keep our planet under a 1.5°C temperature increase, that every year is critical and that ICC will continue to advocate and push the governments of Arctic nations to increase their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time tackling the urgent need for adaptation.14


Mining continues to be an area of dispute in the Greenlandic national discourse, given that the economy is in need of diversification to supplement the fishing industry. The Greenlandic economy fundamentally depends on fisheries: this industry is responsible for more than 85% of the country’s exports.15 The interest in mineral exploitation in Greenland was growing in 2019, according to Naalakkersuisut.16 There are currently two active mines in Greenland but the AEX Gold company is planning to reopen a gold mine in Nalunaq.

Naalakkersuisut and the Greenland Minerals Authority prioritise the early inclusion of the voice and knowledge of local communities in Greenland. The local citizen-based approach to inclusion is written into the Greenland Mineral Resources Act.17 Public hearings are required by law when mining companies are planning mineral resource projects and it is made clear that the local communities in Greenland are thought of as an integral part of intervention in the mineral industry in Greenland.18 In 2019, the Greenland Minerals Authority facilitated dialogue meetings on the mineral industry for local citizens in Nanortalik and Qaqortoq in South Greenland. The authorities received enthusiastic reviews from 61 out of 68 participants, who described the meetings as inclusive and informative.19 Naalakkersuisut is thereby fulfilling its obligation to ensure the inclusion of local citizens in mineral resource projects, as an ongoing part of the recommendations from Greenland’s NGOs, including ICC, to work for better inclusion of citizens in decision-making processes.

Children’s rights

In a speech given on Greenland’s National Day and the 10-year anniversary of self-rule, 21 June, Premier Kielsen stressed that many public authority areas, including that of the children’s area, needed to be devolved from Denmark. There was an increased focus and debate on children’s rights in Greenland throughout 2019, especially after a Danish Broadcasting Company documentary exposed massive problems of abuse and violence towards children and youth in Tasiilaq, East Greenland. Former Naalakkersuisoq of Social Affairs and now Director of the Children’s and Family Department of Sermersooq municipality, Martha Lund Olsen (Siumut), was confronted in the documentary with the authorities’ lack of action and neglect. A fierce debate ensued among local citizens in the national and social media, which was also reflected in the public debate in Denmark.

The Danish government and Naalakkersuisut established crosscutting Greenlandic-Danish cooperation focused on how work with children and youth in Greenland experiencing neglect and abuse could be strengthened in the longer term. Furthermore, initiatives aimed at adults committing abuse as well as recommendations for pre-emptive work are to be launched.20 In November 2019 it was decided that the Danish government would provide 80 million Danish Kroner to help victims of abuse in Greenland over a four-year time frame.21

On the occasion of the 30-year anniversary of the UN Children’s Convention, a UNICEF Children’s Conference took place in Nuuk in November. Earlier in 2019, a report on children’s and youth rights, published by the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR) and the Human Rights Council of Greenland, described developments in the area and highlighted the children’s struggle with neglect, abuse, violence etc. The report takes its point of departure in the 1989 UN Children’s Convention, the SDGs and Killiliisa, Naalakkersuisut’s 2018-2022 strategy to combat sexual abuse. The central recommendations from the report encourage the relevant authorities to collect and publish more statistics and work to systematically gather knowledge as a basis for lasting change.22

There is also a new Inatsisartut law on support for persons with disabilities. A comprehensive review of the area has included establishing a position for a disability spokesperson and Tilioq, an institution for disabilities. Interest in the area has grown in recent years, with e.g. the first conference on autism in Greenland and a follow-up on the disability convention. Among the recommendations are teachers’ capacities to include pupils with disabilities in elementary schools, the availability of mobility aids in buildings etc.23

In general, DIHR recommends that Naalakkersuisut, in dialogue with the Danish government, should repeal Greenland’s territorial reservation. The protocols for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child with regard to individual access for complaints would thus enter into force in Greenland. DIHR furthermore recommends that Greenland include a general ban on discrimination, including discrimination caused by a disability, as it is a basic principle of human rights.24

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

The special theme of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ (UNPFII) 18th session was “Indigenous Peoples’ Traditional Knowledge, Generation, Transmission and Protection” and 2019 was also the International year of Indigenous languages. Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC) Greenland arranged a workshop and a podcast about the Greenlandic language, in line with the UN’s declaration of 2019 as the year of Indigenous languages.25 Tove Søvndahl Gant, National Expert at the European External Action Service, has been elected as an expert member of the Permanent Forum (UNPFII) from 2020-2022. Naalakkersuisoq of Education, Culture, Church and Foreign Affairs, Ane Lone Bagger, notes that Søvndahl Gant is highly qualified to handle Indigenous Peoples’ interests in the Arctic Region and Naalakkersuisut emphasises that the election of a Greenlandic representative is extremely positive.26


Notes and references

  1. Statistics Greenland, Population Estimate July Available at: http://www.stat.gl/dialog/main.asp?lang=da&version=201904&sc=BE&subthemecode=O1&colcode=O
  2. IWGIA, “Greenland”, The Indigenous World 2019, Available at: https://www. iwgia.org/images/documents/indigenous-world/IndigenousWorld2019_UK.pdf
  3. ”Ministre trækker sig fra Grønlands regering efter kritik”. 10 April 2019: https://jyllands-posten.dk/politik/ECE11310614/ministre-traekker-sig-fra- groenlands-regering-efter-kritik/
  4. “Aqqalu: Klimaforskere malker kassen”. Sermitsiaq, 4 April 2019: https://ag/aqqaluklimaforskere-malker-kassen
  5. “IA: Aqqalu sætter Grønlands troværdighed på spil”. Sermitsiaq, 5 April 2019: https://sermitsiaq.ag/ia-daqqalu-saetter-groenlands-trovaerdighed-spil
  6. “Trods kritik: Kielsen afviser at udskrive valg”. Kalaallit Nunata Radio, 10 April 2019: https://knr.gl/da/nyheder/trods-kritik-kielsen-afviser-udskrive-valg
  7. “Danish PM says Trump’s idea of selling Greenland to S. is absurd”. Reuters, 18 August 2019: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-greenland/ danish-pm-says-trumps-idea-of-selling-greenland-to-u-s-is-absurd- idUSKCN1V80M0
  8. United Nations, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Available at: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp- content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf
  9. Ministry of Nature, Environment and Research. Climate Greenland, International Commitments. 20 February 2020: http://climategreenland.gl/en/citizen/ society-and-health/international-commitments/
  10. The Prime Minister’s Office, ”Om Rigsfællesskabet på Statsministeriets hjemmeside”. Accessed 20 February 2020: http://www.stm.dk/_a_1602.html
  11. Inuit Circumpolar Council, The Utqiagvik Declaration 2018, July 2018. Accessed 20 February 2020: https://www.arctictoday.com/wp-content/ uploads/2018/07/2018-Utigavik-Declaration.pdf
  12. ”ICC til Kim: Tal klima og fredeligt Arktis med Trump”. Sermitsiaq, 8 August 2019: https://sermitsiaq.ag/node/215333
  13. ICC Greenland newsletter, November 2019, 6. Available at: http://inuit.org/ news/press-releases/
  14. ICC press release from COP25 Madrid, December 13 Available at: https:// www.inuitcircumpolar.com/news/inuit-at-cop25-our-ice-is-melting-our- oceans-are-at-risk-our-planet-is-on-fire/
  15. Cit. (2)
  16. Government of Greenland, “Interesse for mineralefterforskning er stigende”, 29 July 2019: https://naalakkersuisut.gl/da/Naalakkersuisut/ Nyheder/2019/07/2907_minerealefterforskning-stigende
  17. Greenland Minerals Authority website, accessed December 20 2019: https://gl/exploration-prospecting/get-an-exploration-licence/mineral- resources-act/
  18. Government of Greenland, ”Dialogmøder om råstofudvindelse og borgerinddragelse”. 30 January 2019: https://naalakkersuisut.gl/da/ Naalakkersuisut/Nyheder/2019/01/3001_dialogmoeder
  19. Government of Greenland, Naalakkersuisut. ”Den gode samtale oversteg alles forventinger”. 16 February 2019: https://naalakkersuisut.gl/da/Naalakkersuisut/ Nyheder/2019/02/160218-gode-samtale-oversteg-alles-forventninger
  20. Government of Greenland, Naalakkersuisut. “Fælles tværgående arbejde med anbefalinger, som skal hjælpe udsatte børn og unge i Grønland sættes i gang”. 10 October 2019: https://naalakkersuisut.gl/da/Naalakkersuisut/ Nyheder/2019/10/1010_faelles_igangsaettelse
  21. “Folketing: 80 millioner afsat til kampen mod overgreb”. Sermitsiaq, 21 November 2019: https://sermitsiaq.ag/folketing80-millioner-afsat-kampen- overgreb
  22. Dansk Institut for Menneskerettigheder, Børn og Unge – Status i Grønland 5 April 2019: https://menneskeret.dk/udgivelser/boern-unge-status- groenland-2019
  23. Dansk Institut for Menneskerettigheder, Handicap – Status i Grønland 5 April 2019: https://menneskeret.dk/udgivelser/handicap-status- groenland-2019
  24. Dansk Institut for Menneskerettigheder, Ligebehandling – Status i Grønland 5 April 2019: https://menneskeret.dk/udgivelser/ligebehandling-status-groenland-2019
  25. Inuit Circumpolar Council, ICC Press release November 2019, page 2. Available at: http://inuit.org/news/press-releases/ 
  26. Government of Greenland, Naalakkersuisut. “Grønlænder valgt som ekspertmedlem til et forum i FN”. 15 May 2019: https://naalakkersuisut.gl/ da/Naalakkersuisut/Nyheder/2019/05/140519-Tove-Soevndahl-Gant-som- ekspertmedlem

Joanna Absalonsen holds a Master’s in Cross-Cultural Studies from the University of Copenhagen and works as an employment counsellor and mentor for the Municipality of Copenhagen. She is currently managing a qualitative research project on Inuit youth and education as part of the National Science Foundation program “Young Arctic Leaders in Research and Policy” led by the Arctic Center of the University of Northern Iowa and mentored by Dr. Andrey Petrov and Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough. To get in touch: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced.  Find The Indigenous World 2020 in full here



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for indigenous peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Contact IWGIA

Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

Report possible misconduct, fraud, or corruption

NOTE! This site uses cookies and similar technologies.

If you do not change browser settings, you agree to it. Learn more

I understand